It’s a question one hears all the time: “could the South have won the war?” Indeed, the New York Times Opinionator blog ran a piece on this very question just days ago…the well-worn question was fielded by Civil War historian Terry L. Jones. (note: the South and the Confederacy are not necessarily the same thing – the NYT should know better. And so should Jones).
Jones travels the usual paths, citing issues of contingency and offering the conventional “if xxx then xxx but since xxx then xxx” explanations, ultimately concluding that “a credible argument can be made that its defeat was inevitable from the beginning.”
Well, perhaps – especially if one is drawing such conclusions with the advantage of hindsight safely tucked in one’s breast pocket.
But I propose that we are asking the wrong question.
Of course the Confederacy could have won the war. They had any number of advantages over their Federal opponents in 1861.* But they didn’t win for any number of reasons.
The Rebels thought they could win. In fact, they were certain of it. And I might add that they could not predict the future.
So let’s ask, reading history forward: why did the Confederacy lose (or rather, why did the Union win) the war? It’s a much more engaging question, which allows us to dispense with the what ifs.
* CSA advantages in 1861: vast territory that the United States had to conquer with a small army, thousands of miles of coastline and rivers that that the Union Navy had to blockade/control with few serviceable ships, the Confederates would be fighting with a home-field advantage – they knew the territory and maneuvered among a friendly populace, they had 3 million or so slaves to do much of the work allowing nearly all military-age men to potentially serve in a military capacity, the Confederates didn’t need to do anything – no action by the US meant victory by default, the Confederate government was not hindered by annoying party politicking, and their executive – Jefferson Davis – had plenty of practical experience both as a soldier and a statesman. But of course, things have a way of changing….quite quickly. Let’s talk about those things.